Used with permission of Sr Dorothy B. Woodward rsj, Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar.

In recent weeks across the globe, the world has been lamenting tragedies described in media reports as ‘living hell’. This includes the land where both Jesus and John the Baptist were born, grew into manhood, ministered amongst their people, and died for how they taught and lived in right relationship with God and with other human beings.

The words “From the River to the Sea” have rung out in chants across the weeks in the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Seacoast, as both Israelis and Palestinians have struggled for recognition of their ancestral rights, seeking mutual survival, territorial security, and freedom from terror.

Each year in our Christian liturgical calendar, we honour the story of Jesus’ Baptism, mentioned in each of the four Gospels. From them we gain insights into different writers’ appreciation of what transpired between God and Jesus and John in that very Jordan River within that very contested territory.

From Mark 1:7:11 in the feast’s lectionary we hear that ‘the heavens opened’ as God revealed Jesus as ‘beloved Son’ [cf. Mt 3:13-17; Lk 3:21-21; Jn 1:29-35]. Perhaps today we can pray that ‘the heavens will open’, and that God’s beloved sons and daughters on both sides of the conflict will be able to respond to the Spirit’s urging within them to open chances for reconciliation, just settlement and peace.

To deepen my own appreciation of the significance of this feast, I took time, firstly in the ancient practice of visio divina, praying with ’the eyes of the heart’, with the accompanying image by Sr Dorothy Woodward rsj. Then, through the similarly ancient practice of lectio divina I ruminated over a range of scriptural texts related to Jesus and John, refreshing my perspective on the background to the events of that day in the River Jordan.

Contemplating the image, I found myself caught by the demeanor of both men. To me they appear stilled, in paralleled, undistracted gaze, as if responding to an experience that has moved them enormously, leaving them in awe at being caught up in God’s revealing of Jesus’ as Son, and in their felt sense of God’s presence.

Then, in lectio divina, I did a slow read of all that the Gospel texts say about John and Jesus, letting myself sense the heart, mind and spirit of both of them as they moved towards the experience of Jesus’ baptism, and then as they moved into the rest of their lives.

One significant text for me in this process was the account in Luke 1:39-56 of the visit of Mary, Jesus’ pregnant mother, with Elizabeth, John’s also pregnant mother. It reminded me that, according to Elizabeth, John jumped for joy in utero when encountering Jesus for the first time. I sensed Luke’s wish to show that both John and Jesus, from their mothers’ wombs, internalised the message of Mary’s canticle [vv 46-55]. As she praised God for God’s faithfulness across the generations, she signalled that John and Jesus were called to embody God’s own desire to offer the world good news in the form of human happiness, by favouring the humble over the powerful and filling the hungry with all that would satisfy them.

Certainly, each of the four Gospels’ prime concern at Jesus’ Baptism is to proclaim the significance of the life, death and raising of Jesus the Christ, God’s “beloved Son” who leads us into true relationship with God. In each of the Gospels also, John preaches the goodness of God and calls people to repentance, so they can experience God more fully. Yet he always points beyond himself to the truth that it is Jesus, not he, who is God’s Light for the world [cf. Jn 1:19-23].

My reflective praying raised in me the further convictions that John was no mere bystander in Jesus’ baptism, and that the event is no ‘one-off ’encounter between the two men. Rather, in the paralleled, transforming ministry they have been doing, and will continue to do amongst people, they are both active, conscious participants in the lead-up to the Baptism experience that day in the Jordan.

John is not simply the last of the great Jewish prophets superseded by Jesus, a ‘fringe-Saint’ for Christians. What we find when we look deeply enough, is that the four canonical Gospels attest to a type of sacred companionship in mission between John and Jesus, different in their style from each other, but confirming the call of the same God in their lives, and giving biblical witness to the fact that the support of companions is a vital component in the life of disciples.

A range of scriptural references to Jesus and John give attention to this ongoing companionship. They are probably not kin, as Luke’s Gospel portrays them, but they know and respect each other. They are not competitive with each other, but they are possibly somewhat bewildered by each other, trying to figure each other out, aware of each other’s goodness, and well aware of God’s action in each other.

Consider the following:

  • John’s words to Jesus in Mt 3:14: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”
  • John’s words about Jesus in Luke 3:16: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
  • The similarly caustic criticism by both of them about the hypocrisy of the scribes and pharisees who place unfair religious burdens on the poor.
  • From John in Lule 3:7: “You brood of vipers.”
  • From Jesus in Mt 23: 33 “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?”
  • Jesus words about John in Mt 11:11: “Among those born of women, no one has risen greater than John the Baptist.”
  • Jesus’ need to take space alone to pray after hearing of the death of John in Mark 6:45.

John and Jesus are companions on mission together for the sake of God’s will for the world and for the sake of the well-being of people.

The Baptism of Jesus demonstrates the significance of that companionship in the faith of the communities in which Gospels were written.

Virginia Bourke rsj